A CIL Reflection – Charleston: Days of Heartbreak

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   Charleston: Days of Heartbreak

Judith Sarah Schmidt, PhD 

Dear friends of CIL,

Nine precious lives were taken in a torrent of hatred in a historic freedom loving Black church.

We need to speak, to draw words out of the silence of shock, out of all the horrible painful places we are each sitting with. We need to speak words of sorrow, of heartbreak, of outrage, of healing.

Our hearts go out to the parents, the children, the families and the friends of those who were killed by a broken young man on a dark mission to murder those   he considered undeserving to live because of the color of their skin. A young man swept into the vortex of a terrible archetypal force that allowed him to see the singular humanity, the Thou of the other, for a moment. He said, “For a moment, I thought of not killing them…they were so kind to me.”

For a moment, this young person was able to see through the crack in his heart.  For a moment, he was free to be human, to let the light come in. For a moment, he was free of the archetypal force, able to clearly see the naked faces of human goodness inviting him in, praying, studying. For a moment.

And then he was swept back into the over-powering forces of seeing with a split mind, through the lens of black and white, good and bad, unable to see for more than the moment the sacred human faces of those around him. Unable to see the human face of the courageous young black man who approached and said, “Do not shoot!”  No longer able to see the unique human face before him, the crack in his own heart shuttered, he replied, “I must shoot you black people who rape our women, who are taking over our country”and leaving the brave young man fallen in a pool of his blood.

Evil has been named as that which does not allow a person to see the human face of the other. Nine lives lost to the blindness of hatred that could not see.

And still the human prevails and triumphs: the families of those killed spoke to the killer, saw his face, prayed for his soul. They spoke to him through their anguish, through their grief, through their anger: “We forgive you, may God help you, may you be saved.”

They refused to not see the human face. They refused to become inhuman. It is a wondrous thing how they refused to be taken up into the dehumanizing force of hatred, of vengeance, how they refused to succumb to hatred, to destroy themselves and the other with vengeance. They refused to make an Other of the one who murdered their loved ones. Truly, it is a sacred ground on which they stand.

Today I heard Juan Filipe Herrera, the new poet laureate of the United States, recite some lines of his poem Song Out Here:

Can you turn around so that I can look into your eyes

Maybe like hers    can you see her    and his    can you see them

I want you to see them      all of us we could be together

…..You know how it is        just for once can you turn around

 …..    it is me       I want to sing    invincible  

 bleeding out with love    just for you

Because we are merely flawed beings, we each stand on the precipice of losing our capacity to look into the face of the other and see, really see the precious life of another human being. I can say for myself, that I fail over and over again in any single day, in small and larger ways, to see this life before me. In how many moments, seeing only the ‘dangerous Other’ who must be destroyed by an uncaring word, by a turning away of the head. May we have mercy for one another for the shared frailty to our commitment to caring. May we take on the spiritual practice to see the sacredness in the face before us, in those we love and in the stranger.

I am guided by the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, a survivor of six years in a Nazi work camp. Levinas became an esteemed philosopher at the Sorbonne. The cornerstone of his philosophy was seeded by the dehumanization in the camps where no one would look into his face. He went on to teach of how ethical behavior begins when we look into the vulnerable face of another. He tells us when we look into the Thou of another’s face, we must protect him because we know how easily that life can be destroyed. How easy it was to destroy nine lives in the Baptist Church!

Sometime after Levinas left the camps, upon entering a café an older gentleman held the door for him. Levinas said, ‘Merci’ and considered that simple small gesture of holding open the door an act of mercy.

May we remember to keep on having mercy for one another for our shared human frailty. May we become more and more mindful to draw back from the precipice of the word, or look, or deed that can make of a sacred Thou the Other to be destroyed. We know we will fail over and over again but if we practice returning to our mind-hearts, we will prevail and humanize the forces that destroy life. May we take it on as our spiritual practice to see the sacredness in the face before us, for those we love and for the stranger and for ourselves.

Today I went to Sunday services at the local Baptist church, which was filled to the rafters, filled with singing and clapping and sobbing, all at the same time. Filled with such strength to keep dancing on the ashes, invincible.

May we bleed out with love

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